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In My Opinion

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Charlotte, Atlanta and 2 inches of snow

By Peter St. Onge
pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

Did you detect a bit of smugness in Charlotte this past week?

It was about how smoothly we handled our snow.

Yes, we know it was two inches, and we know how that’s funny to people from places north of here. That’s fine. As an Alabama-born friend once told me, “Everyone has their Mississippi.” This week, ours was Atlanta.

On Tuesday, two inches of snow caused a traffic nightmare for our neighbor to the south, stranding adults and kids overnight at work and school. Charlotte also got two inches of snow Tuesday, but that didn’t stop us from getting home for dinner and sleeping snugly in our beds.

That happened in part because Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials were (cue the chest puffing) diligent about road prep and proactive about school dismissals.

But we also got lucky.

Let’s go back to Tuesday. Like Atlanta, Charlotte sent its kids to school that morning on-time and in clear weather. Like Atlanta, Charlotte kept its eye on a forecast of midday snow. That forecast caused superintendents in both regions to decide Tuesday morning that schools would dismiss early. And in both cities, the snow ultimately amounted to about what was forecast – 1 to 3 inches.

But in Atlanta, the flakes started falling around noon – right as schools were preparing to let out. Workers and bosses saw the snow outside their windows and also hit the road. So did parents whose children don’t take the bus home. So instead of the normal, staggered, awful Atlanta commute, it was like everyone leaving a Braves game at once, times a billion.

Traffic got snarled. Cars slid into other cars, snarling traffic even more. Within an hour, no one was moving, which allowed the snow to make things worse. By nightfall, thousands had simply left their vehicles on the side of the road.

In Charlotte, the timing was friendlier. Most students were home when the first flakes fell in the late afternoon. The early school dismissal also meant some parents had to leave work to meet their children, which lightened traffic for the rush-hour commute. Good thing, because the early evening roads were slippery enough to cause minor accidents at the clip of almost one per minute, according to police reports.

Still, most everyone got home with plenty of time to sign into Facebook and read how awful things were for friends four hours to the south.

“To be honest,” says Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee, “my first thought was how big a role luck plays.”

Carlee is a 30-year veteran of local government, so he knows this about weather and planning: “You can’t predict what the weather will do.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Atlantans from looking for places to point their frozen fingers. Some are criticizing school officials in the region for not coordinating dismissals Tuesday. Some are laying into Gov. Nathan Deal for not forcing cities to close schools and businesses in advance of the snow. (No other governor did so, either. Remember: 2 inches.)

Others are trying to draw larger conclusions, such as Politico writer and Atlanta resident Rebecca Burns, who laid much of the blame on decades of public reluctance to build transit that accommodates growth. “We need to have ways to get around – and out of – the city other than by car,” Burns wrote.

Carlee agrees that Atlanta’s storm story reinforces the need for Charlotte to fund a long-term transportation plan that includes light rail throughout the county. In the Washington area, he says, that kind of transportation may have helped the city avoid an Atlanta-like snowjam or two.

But Carlee also worked in city government in Birmingham, a smaller city that was paralyzed Tuesday when light snow didn’t track farther south as expected. And less than a decade ago in Raleigh, a mid-afternoon dusting led to the same kind of everyone-on-the-roads nightmare as Atlanta endured this week.

“You’re really dependent on what is falling, when it is falling, and what the temperature is when it’s falling,” Carlee says. “Those three things can conspire to give you disaster or nothing at all.”

In other words, size doesn’t necessarily matter. Preparation, while important, will only take you so far. And Mother Nature has a way of wiping the smugness right off our faces.

Email: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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